By Randy Chang
Most of the student body at UCC has likely never heard of the 90s rap group known as the “Wu-Tang Clan”. Even some of our teachers never appreciated them in youth (thankfully, some did and still do – shoutout Mr. Moon). This won’t be a piece praising their musical talent- those exist in litany elsewhere. I’d like to rather comment on the political legacy that this influential group has left both in spreading African American culture and changing the genre of hip-hop as a whole.
The first observation marking the Wu-Tang style is their violent & graphic, almost dirty lyrical genius. Wu-Tang was heavily influenced, in both name and work, by old-school kung fu movies that explored vicious, unforgiving, and quick violence. The world was enthralled by Wu-Tang albums that effortlessly turned their mics into lethal weapons, their beats into rhythms of death, and their seamless handoffs to other rappers with no loss in pace. Group leader RZA once said their attitude was to “kill someone in a 4 count”. No one predicted the group from Staten Island to be so good at it.
In that way, the Wu-Tang can be credited for mainstreaming and continuing the aggressive bars spit by NWA years before. NWA created the gangster rap trope: unapologetic, explicit, and (more often than not) maniacally misogynistic. Wu-Tang certainly followed these patterns, but they did so in a more graceful fashion. Metaphor and euphemism abound, violence was disguised in the magical reality of swords and comic book fantasies. Wu-Tang felt more playful, artistic, polished. Even if they had less plays (a lively debate, that has no clear answer: do you value on top hit’s impact or overall discography? Solo albums?) the Wu-Tang was easier to listen to. Not mentioning any cop station by name helped to not fully alienate. Paradoxically, being subtle made it easier to spread equally political messaging: in “Protect Ya Neck”, Staten Island is transformed into Shaolin, and gangsters morph into samurai (who also follow a strict regime of rules). Such set up a new generation of artistic, clever, nuanced political commentary and storytelling in hip-hop. Think All Black Everything by Lupe Fiasco, Story of O.J by Jay-Z, most of Kendrick’s work, the indomitable J. Cole, even recent rappers in the context of BLM.
The second unique aspect of the Wu-Tang style was business-related. At this point, the future of hip-hop was uncertain. There was a clear demand for the genre, and NWA had set up their own legacy through Death Row records. Yet, there was a fear of record labels restricting creative freedoms, and individual deals being seen as dichotomous with group collaboration (which would’ve made impossible the creation of some of the best work in decades). Wu-Tang took a different approach- it was a trailblazer in giving their members the freedom to sign their deals solo. In fact, most members used the Clan to jumpstart their own careers.or instance, Ol’ Dirty Bastard collaborated with Mariah Carey on a remix of “Fantasy” (yep, I also can’t believe I wrote that sentence). Such models set a precedent for the rap game going forward, with solo artists having a culture of features and album collaboration, because they weren’t seen as mutually exclusive.
Wu-Tang was certainly a fun group to listen to- but beneath their delightfully eldritch bars laid some of the most game changing, political messaging the world has ever been blessed with.